Why Are We Still Talking About Hillary Clinton’s Clothes?

When it was revealed this month that Hillary Clinton wore an Armani jacket that cost nearly $12,500 in April while giving a victory speech after the New York primary, mainstream media outlets and social media platforms alike lambasted her. Clinton’s clothing choice was presented across these media as a direct contradiction to her efforts in her speech to present herself as an “everywoman.” How can she possibly have empathy for the poor while making such a blatant display of conspicuous consumption, after all? (Conspicuously absent from all of this criticism was any mention of how much male politicians spend on their suits.) Her sartorial choice became a trending topic on Facebook and Twitter. Articles on sites from CNBC to the New York Post traced the development of her personal style from “frumpy” first lady to pant-suited Secretary of State to, most recently, lavishly adorned presidential candidate.

It was a debacle that exemplified how gender roles and expectations shape the lives of women in politics—and how the double-standards applied to them put their appearances, and not just their politics, in the national spotlight.

Fashion choices undeniably play a role in political processes, as they do in many professional contexts. Research has shown that appearance plays a role in determining election outcomes, especially when combined with other factors such as race, gender and ethnicity. For women, the stakes are particularly high—and unsurprisingly, it is often women who face scrutiny for their appearances when taking the public stage.

Michelle Obama has been simultaneously lauded as the “first lady of fashion” and widely scorned for choosing to bare her (impeccably toned) arms. Sarah Palin was denounced as elitist by fellow Republicans when it was revealed that the Republican Party spent close to $150,000 on her campaign wardrobe. Hillary Clinton, after speaking in Bangladesh sans makeup and wearing glasses, was said by DailyMail to look “tired and withdrawn,” her lack of attention to appearance clearly evidencing her complete lack of desire to make another run at the presidency.

Meanwhile, it is hard to find entire posts dedicated to the fashion successes and faux-pas of men in the American political sphere. Perhaps the most controversial sartorial escapade of Obama’s presidency was his daring choice to wear a tan suit to a press conference in 2014, which sparked many a lighthearted joke on Twitter. Clothing-related controversy around Trump’s campaign has focused almost exclusively on whether or not his brand’s designer suits and ties are produced outside of the United States, rather than on the price of the suits he wears himself. Though significant Twitter debate arose over whether the suit Bernie Sanders wore at the March 9 Democratic debate was blue, brown, or black, his choice to make “perceived anti-fashion statements” by wearing ill-fitting clothing goes largely without criticism, seen as a sensible outcome of his choice to portray himself as a common man.

When it came to this year’s presidential race, it was clear that candidates all made strategic fashion choices. Bernie Sanders’ frizzy-haired, dowdy look paints him as a man of the people, too concerned with grand political schemes to consider fashion. Donald Trump, despite his penchant for trucker hats and his unmistakable blond comb over, presents himself mainly as a trimmed and professional real estate mogul with an admitted taste for $7,000 Brioni suits. Yet neither Sanders nor Trump has received the same kind of backlash over their choice of apparel as Clinton has for hers.

While most male politicians seem to float by wearing staple dark-colored suits, red and blue ties, and white collared shirts, women in the field seem to be caught in a ceaseless sartorial double-bind: If they choose not to dress up, they are tired, unattractive or overly exposed; if they dish out the dollars for an expensive outfit, they undeniably undermine any efforts to relate to poor and working-class constituents.

Nearly 100 years after women won suffrage, we’re still waiting for those in the realm of politics to be judged not for the fabrics on their skin, but the content of their minds. In my opinion, a shift in this mindset would truly be the fairest of them all.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 11.04.13 AMNatalie Geismar is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a rising sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, where she double majors in International and Area Studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is an ardent feminist with a passion for human rights work and advocacy of all varieties and hopes to become some combination of international lawyer/activist/journalist/Amal Clooney in the future.

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  1. Juliette Faraone says:

    “…we’re still waiting for those in the realm of politics to be judged not for the fabrics on their skin, but the content of their minds”–great line an couldn’t agree more!

  2. Maeve Barry says:

    “Nearly 100 years after women won suffrage, we’re still waiting for those in the realm of politics to be judged not for the fabrics on their skin, but the content of their minds. In my opinion, a shift in this mindset would truly be the fairest of them all.”- so true and excellent quote. This is an informative, well written, excellent article!

  3. Juliette Luini says:

    Thank you for shedding light on the twisted double standards of women and fashion in politics. You have a great zoomed out perspective of all this reveals about how women are treated in politics and American culture.

  4. Michelle says:

    What Clinton was being criticized for was her wearing a $12k jacket on not a victory speech, but her speech she was giving on income equality! Big difference.

    • Natalie Geismar says:

      Actually, Clinton did wear the jacket while giving a speech to celebrate winning the New York Democratic primary. A video of the full speech can be found here, if you’d like to see for yourself: http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2016/04/20/hillary-clinton-new-york-primary-entire-speech-sot.cnn

    • candice3224 says:

      Clinton doesn’t pretend to be working class or lower-income. Hillary Clinton has always been honest about being white and rich. I have noticed this in her debates with Sanders and Martin O’Malley. Actually, both O’Malley and Clinton are honest about it, and admit to their privileges. It has been Sanders who claims to be representative of the people. Now, of course, Sanders is not in league financially with O’Malley or Clinton, but he is still wealthy and pretending to be representative of lower-income people.

      Since Clinton hasn’t pretended to be low-income, I was not offended by her expensive outfit. I think the article though is about the expectations on female candidates. Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders and even Trump (though he is a billionaire) could get away with low-cost clothing. The nicelooking Justin Trudeau in Canada could get away with low-cost clothing, but female candidates cannot do this. Look at Elizabeth Warren, a role model for women who is fashionable without being concerned about fashion. What I love about Warren is that she isn’t afraid to just wear black pants, a dark blouse, and those bright purple/blue/green blazers. Even to fancy political events! Well, there is news for people who don’t realize how much harder it is for women. Warren has given several interviews explaining that she gets criticized for sometimes wearing lacy or frilly blouses with her blazers. She still does it, but there is criticism. Warren has also said that many of her blazers cost approximately $600 or $700. They are basically off the rack, but not the $30 kind that I myself wear.

      Obviously, no politician or candidate should be wearing $12,000 jackets, but why are we blaming Clinton, who is expected to always look polished and tailored? Is it any different from male candidates with expensive cars? Or male candidates with expensive hockey tickets? What I like about Clinton is that she is honest about being rich and privileged. She isn’t pretending to be low income.

      While I was hoping that Sanders would be the choice for Vice President (that choice is gone, as Sanders is not being considered), I also have something to say about Sanders: It is not acceptable that he hasn’t acknowledged Clinton’s historic milestone. I acknowledge Sarah Palin and Carly F, though I would not vote for them. Diversity and accomplishments for women should be acknowledged, even if we have political differences. I definitely acknowledged Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio being the first candidates with Hispanic backgrounds to win primaries, though I wouldn’t vote for them. Diversity needs to be acknowledged and celebrated, regardless of the politics. I understand this article is about the fixation with female politicians appearances, but I wanted to mention that Sanders behaviour has disappointed me. Do you think Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren could get away with not acknowledging Pres Obama historic milestone?

      By the way, Carly Fiorina has acknowledged Clinton’s historic milestone. Fiorina says she definitely will NOT vote for Clinton, but she is acknowledging it and that’s great.

      • She acknowledged her wealth and haven’t tried to hide it? Didn’t she say she was “dead broke” when she left the White House????

  5. Margret E. says:

    I have been a Ms. magazine reader since I was a child in the early seventies. I agree with your point and am supporting Hillary. This jacket, however, illustrated the frustration even her longtime supporters have for her often tone deaf and incredulous absence of common sense. Gender aside, she could easily clothe herself with even $1,000 jackets and $2,000 suits, as investment pieces, reusing most on the campaign trail. The optics of a 5 figure jacket, however, indicates either a lack of sense or sensibility. This was an avoidable, self-inflicted wound.

  6. candice3224 says:

    Natalie, thank you for mentioning the suffragettes, as I think they often are maligned. Yes, many of them were conservative and some were racist, but they were women of their times. I like the suffragettes and think they were great!

  7. M. Report says:

    Obama’s sartorial sin is to dress casual, open collar,
    when making a formal statement about someone
    or something he wishes to disrespect.

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